*This is the second of two blog posts that examines local, nonviolent responses to mass atrocities. This post examines specific strategies communities can use. For the first post, click here.
“During mass atrocities, most civilians survive with little outside help. While peacekeeping plays an important role, NGO’s must help communities prepare themselves to respond to violence.”
Separating mass atrocities into categories risks oversimplification, but different response strategies apply to different types of violence. Therefore, modern-day mass atrocities can broadly be separated into two categories: counterinsurgency (COIN) and communal. While this division risks empirical oversimplification and many scenarios have elements of both, delineating the two allows for a more concise construction of the logic behind civilian self-protection.
During counterinsurgencies, the flow of information is the central cause of mass atrocities. Combatants use civilians to gather information about enemy troop movements and the identity of civilian supporters of the opposition. Because armed actors need this information, but are often unable to verify it independently, civilians have quite a bit of power in determining the strategic use of violence. This power is often abused. Kalvyas and Kaplan have both extensively documented how civilians partner with armed actors not because of ideologies, but to settle personal scores. Fear is also a powerful explanation for civilian cooperation. Kalyvas argues that physical control by armed groups is a highly influential factor in explaining civilian cooperation, especially as the conflict progresses. Finally, when armed actors lack information to determine who’s working with the enemy and who’s not, they may resort to indiscriminate violence to intimidate would-be enemy collaborators. This strategy, however, is not very effective, and so combatants will likely only pursue this strategy when there is a lack of resources to devote to information-gathering.
To counter these issues, there are a few basic measures civilians can take. Collectively, these measures are most coherently contained within the concept of “Zones of Peace” (ZoP’s). ZoP’s have been established in varying forms and with varying levels of success around the world. They rest on the basic principle of civilian non-participation in COIN. In his study of ZoPs in Colombia, Kaplan lists a few generalizable strategies communities can use: Creating a culture of peace, implementing conflict resolution processes, creating internal investigative bodies that have the trust of armed actors, and naming and shaming. The first two help prevent civilians from using armed actors to settle disputes, while the second solves the information problem for armed actors. If combatants on are confident that a certain community is not aiding any armed group, then they are much less likely to target the community. Finally, the last strategy allows civilians to shame certain armed actors that have committed abuses. If the guilty parties need to maintain good relations with NGOs, foreign governments, and local civilians, they may refrain from committing atrocities in the future. One final strategy is for civilians to confront armed groups en masse and demand an end to atrocities. While confrontation carries a high element of risk, if an armed group is hesitant to kill large numbers of civilians at the same time, it can be effective.
Responding to communal conflict differs from COIN mass atrocity mitigation, but the difference is not as clear as one might think. In both situations, civilians become the intentional targets of violence as part of a process in which other goals necessitate the use of violence directed against civilians. One commonly advocated strategy to address communal violence, particularly among studies examining the Holocaust, is to identify societies with deep social cleavages and cultures conducive to mass killing, and then attempt to positively change those elements through public messaging. However, since explanations focused on pre-existing societal rifts seem to poorly explain why mass atrocities emerge and these rifts are widespread and deeply-rooted in many societies, addressing such issues directly would require huge resources (human, financial, and institutional). Instead, addressing “hot spots” (as mass atrocities are often committed and directed by a very small group) with contact programs or education aimed at violence-reduction could be effective. Perpetrators beyond central leaders often have fairly apolitical motives for participating in mass atrocities, with group dynamics being a more important cause. Therefore, creating an atmosphere in which potential perpetrators feel increased social pressure to not participate mass atrocities could have a positive mitigating effect. Similarly, the public challenging of perpetrator leaders early in the process of mass atrocities can also reduce violence by creating the political will to withdraw the public complicity necessary to commit large-scale violence. Communal violence is also often driven by misinformation. This misinformation helps to create the social myths necessary to justify the killing of others, but it also can create erroneous beliefs about the opponent’s actions or motives. Initiatives such as the Sentinel Project’s proposed text messaging service in the Tana Delta that would verify the truthfulness of rumors can help stop the spread of false information that leads to violence.
Two other locally-focused strategies that hold promise for mass atrocities violence mitigation are locally-led advanced mobile aid (LLAMA) and localized conflict early warning systems (LCEWS). LLAMA provides, quick, mobile humanitarian aid to communities at risk that are beyond the political, geographic, or temporal reach of traditional aid agencies. It can also be adapted for civilian protection in conflict situations. It can improve information flow to isolated, at-risk communities and provide them with the information and the means to move to lower-risk areas when physical escape is the best option. LCEWS are another important strategy. Currently, early warning systems mostly exist at the level of national or international organizations, which according to Barrs, creates the problem that “alerts, bulletins, and reports are sent around the world in real time. Yet they rarely touch ground where the killing happens. They fly through cyberspace, high over the victims’ heads. People at risk on the ground might never learn that the ‘demarches’ we write on their behalf even exist.” Therefore, localized early warning, especially ones with advanced vertical integration, could greatly improve the flow of information to at-risk communities, allowing them to better assess their options.
Ultimately, there are plenty of strategies out there for nonviolent, local mass atrocities mitigation, but the growing abundance of such studies has been largely ignored by policy makers. So while policy makers would do well to accept less bureaucratic, nonviolent, and local methods for preventing and responding to mass atroci
ties, scholars also need to expand this idea theoretically, rather than the conceptually and geographically limited studies that populate the majority of the relevant literature. A key question still remains: how do perpetrators and victims actually interact? The dearth of scholarship that addresses this question on the theoretical level is a real shame, and better analysis could seriously improve our understanding of how civilians can protect themselves during mass atrocities. It’s a question I’d love to see answered as work in this field progresses.